Of soccer and seagulls


“I’ve finally learned to accept myself for who I am: a beggar for good soccer. I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead: “A pretty move, for the love of God.” And when good soccer happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don’t give a damn which team or country performs it.”
Eduardo Galeano, Uruguayan journalist, writer and novelist

It was just a couple weeks ago but the morning after the first slough will stay with me, the carnival lot felt like an energy field devoid of energy.

I woke a couple hours after falling asleep on an all-night slough (the carnival breakdown that rhymes with pow) and saw what I been seeing in the early mornings in the 500-car parking lot.

Seagulls standing in white contrast against the gravel and dirt lot, amid plastic plates, Chinese food cartons and plastic soda bottles.

Hundreds and hundreds of them squawking.

Walking around the lot I saw the Wacky Worm roller coaster and a couple other rides needed to be finished but trucks had been in and out of the lot all night hauling away the carnival that had sat on about two-football fields of now open space.

Along the midway, as if begging to have his picture taken, a Mexican carny sat alone on a “bitch,” which is the running joke in the carnival because ‘bench’ sounds like ‘bitch’ when said in a Spanish accent. A solitary man alone with his thoughts on an empty midway.

As people straggled out of their bunkhouses, R.V.s and cars, I joined in with the Mexicans breaking down the Wacky Worm.

Senor Grande they call me because I’m six-feet-five inches tall and most of them are much shorter. As the tall guy, I was asked to do lots of lifting over my head and my sore muscles felt like they might audibly squeak.

When the rides were all torn down the Mexicans, ranging from their 20s to early 40s, began playing soccer. The jointees and the ride jockeys passed the soccer ball to each other across the empty dirt lot, mostly a unused backfill plot along San Leandro Bay in West Oakland.

They put down their blackened hard hats and put on baseball caps or used their hands to brush back jet-black hair.

Most wear jeans or worn and dirty work pants, but one of the carnies wore pink Bermuda shorts and a designer shirt as he flashed around the field in front, behind and under the ball. He must have been very good when he was playing in his prime. He’s showing he’s not far past his prime.

They were passing the ball but they were playing to the crowd, mostly family and friends brought up from Mexico on a kind of carnival conveyor belt.

Cheers and comments in Spanish rose with every shoulder-high kick. It reminded me of old Westerns where cowboys sit on the fence as they watch someone break a horse. These men knew the sport. The players were trying to prove they still got it. The onlookers loved cheering and jeering in the mid-day sun. The players were kicking up dust that flew into the crowd.

The Carnival doesn’t pay until slough is finished and everyone seems to know when a woman from the ‘office’ is walking to the center of the crowd to hand out envelopes filled with $1s, $5, $10s and $20s.

She calls out names and people rush forward through the crowd like they won a raffle or got a letter from home.

Jokers in the crowd shout out who might be buying beer tonight, or steaks, or going cruising for girls.

People already have been saving seats in a van to get to the next town. Some will ride with truck drivers. In my last carnival, Monster said he used to jump freight trains from town to town if the jump was along the line.

Hot-headed Franklin, a parolee who rode me relentlessly all night during the slough, gets fed-up and decides to walk to the next town. It would have been a 15-to-20 mile overnight walk but the truck driver I was hitching with pulled over and picked him up. We rode together to the next town, listening to Franklin rail against Mexicans who make sure they get the van “before the Americans.”

As we pull out of the West Oakland lot, I can see the morning seagulls returned to the empty parking lot and stand by the hundreds, maybe thousands. They seem somehow menacing, also somehow like they belong and we don’t.

“Go,” they say.

They remind me of gargoyles, as a single plastic bag crosses the lot like a tumbleweed.

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